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Coronavirus Update: Taiwan criticizes China over Pfizer vaccine deal, and Wuhan lab theory irks Beijing

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Tensions between Taiwan and Beijing flared on Wednesday when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen accused China of blocking a deal Taipei was negotiating with Pfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech to supply the island with COVID-19 vaccines.

Taiwan, which is grappling with a recent surge in new infections after enjoying months of zero cases, has outstanding orders for millions of vaccine doses from AstraZeneca
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and Moderna Inc.
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but has so far received about 700,000 doses and has only managed to vaccinate about 1% of its population of almost 24 million, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Taiwan has previously only implied that Beijing was blocking it. China regards Taiwan as being part of its territory and actively tries to prevent it from building relationships with international partners.

President Tsai said her government had “smoothly” handled orders with AstraZeneca and Moderna, in comments at a meeting of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“As for Germany’s BioNTech
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,
we were close to completing the contract with the original German plant, but because of China’s intervention, up to now there’s been no way to complete it,” she said.

The heightened tensions come as China accuses the U.S. of peddling “conspiracy theories and disinformation” regarding the origins of the pandemic, which started in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

A theory that the virus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory resurfaced this week after the Wall Street Journal reported that three lab workers were hospitalized in November 2019 after suffering COVID-like symptoms, citing U.S. intelligence.

See: U.S. steps up calls for independent inquiry into COVID-19 origin

Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said it was “disrespectful” to the World Health Organization which completed a mission to Wuhan without conclusive findings, as AFP reported.

The WHO said Wednesday that the B.1.617 variant that first emerged in India and is more infectious than the original virus has now been detected in at least 53 countries. In its latest weekly epidemiological update, the agency said new cases and deaths continued to fall in the latest week, but remain stubbornly high at 4.1 million new cases and 84,000 new fatalities.

Declines were sharpest in Europe, followed by Southeast Asia, while the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean, African, and Western Pacific Regions were flat compared with the week earlier.

Source: World Health Organization

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that 39.5% of the population is now fully vaccinated, while 49.5% is partially vaccinated.

Among adults 18 years or older, a full 50% are fully vaccinated.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said vaccinated Americans can look forward to a relaxed Memorial Day holiday weekend, but cautioned that unvaccinated people remain at risk.

“If you are vaccinated, you are protected, and you can enjoy your Memorial Day,” t. Walensky told reporters at a White House briefing. “If you are not vaccinated, our guidance has not changed for you, you remain at risk of infection. You still need to mask and take other precautions.”

A Word from the Experts: Rick Bright wants to wipe out this virus — but it’s going to take better COVID-19 vaccines, distributed to 70% of the world’s population

In other news:

• U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief aide said Wednesday that the government “failed” the British people and “fell disastrously short” in handling the coronavirus pandemic, the Associated Press reported. Dominic Cummings made a blistering attack on the government he once served, telling lawmakers that some ministers and officials went on vacation as the virus swept toward the U.K. in February 2020. He said the government “was not operating on a war footing on this in February in any way, shape or form. Lots of people were literally skiing.” He added that, when the public needed it most, “the government failed,” and people “died unnecessarily” as a result. The U.K. has the fifth highest death toll in the world and highest in Europe at almost 128,000.

See also: U.K. government feared bond-market meltdown from COVID-19 lockdown, Cummings says

• A major Japanese newspaper has called for the Tokyo Olympic Games to be canceled due to the worsening COVID-19 crisis in the country, Voice of America reported. An editorial printed in Wednesday’s edition of The Asahi Shimbun called on Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to calmly assess the current circumstances and cancel the Olympic Games, even though it is one of the major sponsors. Public sentiment against staging the Olympics has been growing amid a surge of new infections that has overwhelmed hospitals across the country. Tokyo and other regions in Japan are under a state of emergency that expires on May 31, but will likely be extended through June. 

• France will impose a compulsory 10-day quarantine period on travelers arriving from the U.K., amid concerns about the spread of the B.1.617 variant in the country, the Guardian reported. Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the government will shortly announce the date at which the quarantine will come into effect. France currently requires travelers from 16 countries, including Brazil, India, Argentina and Turkey, to self-isolate for 10 days.

• The European Union may seek billions of euros in penalties from AstraZeneca over its failure to deliver tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses that it had contracted to supply, the New York Times reported. In the first hearing in a lawsuit that the trading bloc has brought against AstraZeneca, lawyers representing the European Union told the judges in a Brussels courtroom that it was seeking to apply a penalty of €10 (about $12) per dose per day that it has been delayed. The failure to provide promised doses is widely blamed for the EU’s slow vaccination program, which is getting back on track after weeks of delay.

• The European Medicines Agency is expected to announce on Friday whether it will grant emergency use authorization to the Pfizer
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-BioNTech vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, AFP reported. The US Food and Drug Administration has already authorized Pfizer for 12- to 15-year-olds.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 167.9 million on Wednesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll rose above 3.48 million.

The U.S. continues to lead the world in total cases with 33.16 million and deaths with 590,995, although cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all falling as more Americans become vaccinated.

 India is second worldwide with 27 million cases, and third with 311,388 deaths, although those numbers are understood to be greatly undercounted, given a shortage of tests.

Brazil is third in cases with 16.1 million and second in deaths with 452,031. Mexico is fourth by fatalities with 221,960 and 2.4 million cases.

China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,906 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.

There were no economic releases on Wednesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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and S&P 500
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were slightly higher.

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